Earlier this week a Facebook friend posted a link to the New York Times article entitled Who Is a Feminist Now which analyzes which young celebrities have identified as feminists and which have distanced themselves from the term. This article was in response to Shailene Woodley’s comment from Time Magazine where she talks about liking men- that’s why she’s not a feminist. There has been A LOT of backlash against her comments.
My immediate response was to commend her. I have never identified myself as a feminist. While I think her comments as to why she isn’t were not very well thought out, I gave her the proverbial head nod of non-feminist sisterhood. But for whatever reason, instead of reading the article and moving on with my life, it kept swirling around my mind. I started reading more.
I am not ignorant of the history of feminism in America. I owe a lot to the women who came before me. From suffrage, to women in the workplace, to redefining the role of women in the home, etc. I would not be where I am today, living on Clove Island as a single woman with a college education had it not been for feminism. Of this, I am aware.
So why, I began thinking, do I not identify myself as a feminist? Why do I cringe when I hear the word? It goes back to Ms. Woodley’s comments: “Because I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance.”
I grew up in a home where the term “feminazi” was thrown around often. With Rush Limbaugh ringing in the background of my young, malleable mind, his definition became mine. A feminist is a woman who hates men, who wants to murder her unborn children and encourages others to do the same, who feels not only the right, but the obligation, to have multiple sexual partners because she has a chip on her shoulder and needs to show the world that she can be as obnoxious, cruel and perverted as any man.
It took a silly article about celebrities to surface that definition that I’ve long held in the recesses of my mind. This week I grabbed it and really analyzed my prejudices against the term. I refreshed my memory on the history, I grappled with the debt I owe and I looked around at my life here.
Clove Island is probably as much of a matriarchal society as exists in Africa. Property is often passed from mother to daughter. When getting married, it is the wife who has the home. Many women work outside the home or have businesses of their own inside their home. The women are often the breadwinners. Competing with a male dominated religion, women still retain a strong inner spirit. They are not internally cowed. They are strong-willed and from my point of view, they control many of the men in their lives.
They retain this inner strength against all odds. Their society tells them they are stupid. My language helper shared this local language proverb with me this week: “There is a pile of ten smarts, men received nine, and women got one.” Excuse me??
In researching the statistics for the island, the numbers give credence to my impressions of inequality. Gender based violence is a serious issue. Children, especially female children, suffer greatly. Over 700 cases of violence against minors have been reported since 2004, in a country where it is taboo to report this! The real numbers are astronomically higher. Women are small players in the political arena. Women suffer more from the lack of access to clean water. “The rate of access to safe drinking water is estimated to be only 10%. In addition, access to sanitation infrastructure (toilets) is low and household and hospital waste is not managed, resulting in a very unhealthy environment […]which is the cause of the high prevalence of diarrhea, malaria and cholera and typhoid epidemics. Women’s traditional role of fetching water and caring for the sick makes them the main victims of this situation.”
Clove Island is decades ahead of Guinea in terms of gender inequality. As a young, female Peace Corps Volunteer I was slapped with the reality of true gender inequality as I watched girls pulled out of my classes to care for a multitude of younger siblings. I witnessed illiterate women slave their lives away over a fire making endless meals for ungrateful husbands who wiled away their days playing cards under the mango tree. I frequently heard beatings in neighboring huts. I cried when my 5-year-old neighbor girl underwent female genital mutilation (FGM). My heart was broken over and over again for the women of Guinea. And I fought for equality with all my energy. I argued with teenage girls who said their husbands were good to beat them if they did something wrong! I had lengthy discussions with the village “wise women” to try and dissuade them from continuing the practice of FGM. I brought girls to Peace Corps Girls’ Conferences to give them self-confidence. I taught men and women about the importance of birth control and child spacing.
These are not principles I left behind. I still believe in these things!
These beliefs on gender equality are informed and strengthened by my faith. Paul says in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”(italics added). Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he broke down prejudices against women of that day. In the true meaning of the word, Jesus was a feminist. This may be a controversial statement but I think the articles below share good arguments as to what I mean by this.
I am on Clove Island to teach English. That I will do to the best of my ability. But as a follower of Jesus, I also have an obligation to work against inequality in all of its forms. Women are oppressed here in ways that most Western women could not comprehend. My hope is that in my classes, local women will be inspired to learn more, they will be encouraged to explore, they will be empowered to fight for good jobs or start businesses of their own, they will be moved to involve themselves in politics. I want to see them rise above the fringes of society where their culture has relegated them.
With these thoughts in mind, I have come to the conclusion that, like Jesus, I am a feminist too.
 Uncited source for anonymity of location.